Reflections on the Captioning of Web Videos (or lack of same)

Suzanne Robitaille is a disability advocate and an awesome writer. She wrote this piece for Business Week. Enjoy.


When Julia Childs’ The French Chef appeared on PBS in 1972 with captions, it marked the first time TV had ever been accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing. Nearly 40 years later, when viewers first tuned in to “The Annoying Orange,” the chart-topping Webisode series on YouTube, none of the videos bore captions.

Some of the show’s videos now have captions, due to the work of a volunteer.

The new law designed to make it easier for the 54 million Americans with disabilities to access online programming simply isn’t strong enough. The Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 amends Federal Communications Commission policy to require captions for broadcast TV, cable, and satellite programs shown over the Internet if they originally aired on TV with captions.

The problem is that most emerging online formats are not covered in the new law, including popular programming such as Webisodes, content streamed from Netflix and consumer-generated videos on YouTube, where 35 hours of video are uploaded every minute. While NBC’s Hulu, for example, must now provide captions for TV shows online such as Glee, hundreds of online-only channels get a free pass.

Content providers and distributors say the accessibility hurdle is a tough one to clear because of cost and complex technical requirements. While TV delivers captions through a decoder and onto the TV screen — a process nearly perfected over three decades — online programming has introduced a new technology for which captions cannot be so easily applied across different software platforms and video formats. A typical business that posts one 10-minute basic video per week can create its own caption file or pay a captioning studio around $100 to do it. On the other hand, a TV network with hundreds of hours of weekly programming and multiple commercial breaks that require editing workarounds will pay far more.


The Web captions dilemma has drawn the attention of the U.S. Justice Dept., which regulates companies that operate in the public space. On Thursday the DOJ held a hearing to seek public comments to determine whether to consider revising the Americans with Disabilities Act to address accessible Web information and services, movie captioning, and video descriptions. If revised, emerging online programming would likely be required to be accessible through captions — and perhaps other features, such as audio descriptions for the blind. The department is looking closely at how TV, cable, and satellite providers are moving more programming onto emerging online formats that do not require captions. Cable and satellite providers, in an attempt to combat rising subscriber losses, are now giving paying subscribers “free” access to their online movie and video libraries. If a program hasn’t appeared over the airwaves, the FCC can’t touch it.

No industry understands legal loopholes better than movie studios. For years they’ve petitioned against having to provide captions on movies shown in theaters. No surprise then, to see the lack of captions on content viewed at Sony Picture Entertainment’s, Warner Bros.’ and Epix, a third player owned jointly by Viacom’s Paramount Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and Lions Gate Entertainment. The companies claim to be working on captions for these sites.

Streaming movies don’t fare much better. Netflix says it’s working on captioning its Internet movie library, but has dragged its feet for years. Even Hulu and YouTube are getting into the original Webisodes game. None of these programs will offer captions unless the content creator voluntarily provides them.


While it’s good that the Justice Dept. has raised a red flag, that doesn’t mean private sector companies that create videos and other programming for use online should be regulated. Some companies already make good-faith efforts, which the deaf community appreciates. More companies should take the time to learn about the benefits of accessibility and the availability of do-it-yourself tools and captioning services.

Captioning gives companies an opportunity to make their content more readily findable on search engines, which drives more customers to their sites and can lead to better advertising opportunities. Businesses that innovate with captions and other features will enrich the user experience for viewers that are disabled, aging, non-English speaking, and so forth. Loyalty — and profitability — will follow.

Once a cottage industry, emerging online formats now have the potential to lock the deaf and hard-of-hearing population out of a huge marketplace of content, unless new regulation and innovation spurs more businesses — including the emerging online programmers — to embrace accessibility.

Without further incentives, waiting for hundreds of online-only providers to do the right thing will take too long. That’s the message the Justice Dept. should convey — and it’s what businesses and content creators should consider as they look to the future.

A parting thought for those still on the fence. “The Annoying Orange” generated more than 56 million monthly views in October — more traffic than for some cable channels. It’s exempt from the captions law. While some say this Web series isn’t worth spending time on, isn’t that a choice that deaf and hard-of-hearing people should be able to make on their own?


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